- When her husband gives her the pretty little ivory flask, she knows her time is up.
It's been a long time coming, so very long. Lady Zhen is tired, has long been tired of soft smiles and harsh words, seductive dances and painful indifference; this constant push and pull with Cao Pi's machinations. She turns the flask over in her fingers, her heartbeat drumming through her skin against the polished ivory. It really is a pretty little thing, she marvels, watching the dim moonlight glance off the lacquered surface as if frightened off by the darkness it promises.
Lady Zhen is not afraid. To be afraid is to be simple, and if there's anything she has learned from her time in the Wei kingdom, it is that she is far more complex than she can understand. Her complexity is a gentle hand wiping her face, dark eyes meeting and holding hers, a wedding in plum blossoms; she remembers those careful dark eyes pinned to Lady Guo Nüwang- Empress, now- she remembers a casual smile and a not-so-casual command; and no, she is not afraid.
(Not even the slightest.)
Her lord, after all, had driven all fear from her long ago. She does not fear, not since their marriage: not his court or his devious father, not the endless successions of battlefields bathed in sharp words.
Certainly not Guo Nüwang. Certainly not death.
She could never be afraid of anything since then, because he had scared her so completely and forever that day, because she had looked in those eyes and she had known that they would kill her. She had followed him anyway, because he had asked her to- never mind he had just murdered her family of five years- and she was opportunistic, selfish, and scared.
She was a child, then.
She always has been, and probably always will be. "Would be," she reminds herself. Because he had known too, hadn't he? He had always known her to be this way, and that he would, one day, kill her. Not because of it, but because such a woman would warrant nothing better. And yet, what could be better than such a gift from her lord?
"I did know, after all," she says mildly. "I knew, and I am not-"
I am not, I am not...
"I am Empress Wenzhao," she says aloud, watching her reflection in the gleaming bone, relic and reliquary of the afterlife. Beauty that could destroy a kingdom looks back at her- framed with thick dark hair, pale oval face, and eyes the color and shape of spring leaves- she is sorry it didn't.
She hears the slow footsteps and smiles, knows instantly what they mean. "You never could quite make up your mind, my lord."
A tall shadow falls across the door, pausing momentarily at the sight of the famed beauty reclining on the windowsill. She can practically hear his mind working from here, manipulating a mastery of language to immortalize the sight in poetry. A nearly inaudible moan escapes him; she can't see his face from here, but she imagines (with a touch of vanity) that it is stricken.
He moves into the moonlight's path, and she is struck for the endless time how much he looks like his brother. Dark hair reaching his elbows, tied back in the soldier's style, the same exquisite features that could only belong to royalty. If he would ever consent to dressing appropriately, he would be his brother's twin, save for the liquor-clouded eyes.
Regardless, his eyes are honest. She likes those eyes, she decides.
"Wipe your feet," she tells him, with dignity.
He does so solemnly, the way he knows to annoy her best. Scoffing, she turns to the glass, inexplicably hurt by the careless gesture. Perhaps he senses it, because he stops to simply look at her again. Quick, honest eyes instantly note the ivory flask resting innocently in her lap.
"My lady," he begins.
She laughs, lightly for the pain. He smiles to hide a frown.
"My lady, the Emperor sends a most urgent message. You must not-"
"I know," she informs the misted window. "I knew he would. But it's too late." Long, slim fingers let the flask fall. He watches it clink gently on the floor, splatter the rice paper with remnant drops of the deadly contents.
"Too late," Cao Zhi echoes.
She nods, watches him carefully to see if he understands. When something in the honest eyes sinks, she decides he does.
"Then I was too late," he murmurs, moving to sit beside her, closer than usual. She welcomes it, though, as it counteracts the cold seeping from the glass; it will probably be her last moment of earthly warmth.
Her hair swings lightly against the floor. She's let it loose, now that it doesn't matter anymore how she wears it. "Not so," she assures him, wanting to do this one last thing for him. "I am grateful that you are here, my lord Prince."
Something of a smirk plays along his face. "Certainly by now you should know that you need not address me with such titles. You are Empress, after all."
"Not anymore," she contradicts quietly. He falls in silence, too, watching her intently.
"I never knew your name," he says at last, lightly.
She gives him a superior sort of look, seeming much more like herself in that moment. "And you never will," she says primly.
Her lips compress. She looks away again. "No."
Only a poet could appreciate the world in a word. He reaches across the synaptic gap between them and takes her ice-cold hand between his, tilting it towards the window. The blue winter moonlight shades her skin with a lilac luminescence; she is all unearthly glow, and he thinks that maybe this dying creature is the most beautiful thing he will ever see, no longer an empress but forever a queen.
Seeing her like this, he (almost) can't understand why Cao Pi wanted this.
"I am sorry." Sorrier than he can say. "You deserve better, Zhen."
The pain is building in her, an odd wrenching of cold heat at the walls of her stomach. She laughs again, dry and choked this time, unable to hide behind the genteel mask any longer. "Better, you say?" Her words are as bitter as the poison. "What could be better than Empress of Wei, kingdom and legacy of our great late lord Cao Cao?" She spits the name.
His eyes meet hers for the first time, and she knows what he is thinking. Not the glory of an Empress, built upon the false promise of beauty, but neither the disgrace nor the deep, deep hurt, delivered in angry words, a casual smile, and a pretty ivory flask filled with poison.
"Kill yourself," her husband had said, eyes glittering like the jewels of his crown. "So that I may be rid of you."
So she had done it, because what is she if not devoted to her lord?
No, not this glory; she knows Cao Zhi well enough to know that it is no fairy tale. Zhi is a poet, but he is also a soldier who fights for his lord and only sometimes for his lady, and never when it counts.
Her eyes burn. It is her blood burning, that is all. The poison eats through her heart, the poison of both promises, of an imagined life and a real one.
"I am sorry, too." The words spill out of her, unbidden, as she shakes.
His smile is pain. He doesn't know how to comfort her, except to tighten his grip on her hand. She returns the pressure, her face bowed over their linked fingers as if their combined strength could take the pain away.
This sight has no beauty in it. He closes his eyes against it and touches his forehead to hers. "On and on," he tells her. "Going on and on."
Her eyes fly open, a wry green spark in the moonlight. She swallows back a surprised laugh.
"Away from you to live apart," he recites. Looks at her, close enough to read the thoughts on every etch in her skin. "Ten thousand li and more between us-."
"-each at opposite ends of the sky," she finishes. He looks at her in surprise, and she smiles. "The road I travel is steep and long-"
"-who knows when we meet again?" The words are whispered, as loud as he can manage.
Again, she begins to shake.
"Day by day, our parting grows more distant," the words, memorized since he had met her, have a mind of their own now. They fly from his mouth, untamable as the storm in his heart. "Shifting clouds block the white sun; the traveler does not look to return."
He can't stop. He cups her face and smooths back the errant strands of hair, tilts her face up to look her in the eyes. "Thinking of you makes one old." He's hurting her, but he has to say this. "Years and months suddenly go by."
She makes a small, shivering gasp. The green of her eyes is wet and rimmed with red.
"Abandoned, I will say no more." She has to understand. "But pluck up strength and eat my fill."
She is quiet as the poem comes to a close, just looks at him, trying to understand. A cloud creeps slyly across the moon, its silver shadow throwing them in sudden darkness. The only light now comes from the flickering garden lamps, faint and frosted embers tapping gently on the glass and only slightly distracting.
He can't stand the silence anymore. "Please say something."
It's harder and harder for her to talk. "Once," says Lady Zhen, "I was a singing-house girl."
He's always hated this poem. (It reminds him of her.) "Green, green river bank grasses," he murmurs.
She turns her face into his hand. "Now the wife of a wanderer, a wanderer who never comes home."
He thinks maybe she understands after all.
Her breath catches in a sob. "It's hard sleeping in an empty bed alone," she whispers. Begins to cry in earnest.
The Prince gathers the Empress into his arms, murmuring senseless words of comfort. Her grief, for the moment, overwhelms even her encroaching end- is it horrible for him to be grateful for it, even a little?
But he doesn't want her to cry. She looks like something out of a ruined dream, all starlit tears and terror, and if she doesn't stop- right now- the terror will engulf him too.
"Zhen." He buries his face in her hair. "My Lady Zhen." Please don't go.
Shudders. "What would you have given me?" she asks, a little desperately.
What would he have given her? He cradles her convulsively against his shoulder. It is a gentle gesture, one she hasn't received since Cao Pi cleaned her face and told her she was safe; perhaps the best (worst) gesture of her life, and how fitting that it is comfort to her death.
What could he have given her, if this woman who wants nothing but a lovely freedom had been given nothing but him?
"In the garden," he begins, "a strange tree grows."
She begins to smile, tucked safely under his chin.
"From green leaves, a shower of blossoms bursting. I bend the limb and break off a flower, thinking to send it to the one I love." She hates flowers, he muses. "Why is such a gift worth the giving?"
She shakes her head, indicating that she doesn't know. A deep sigh pulls at his lungs.
"Only because I remember how long ago we parted," he tells her.
The corners of her mouth twitch as the rest of her convulses. "That sort of promise would make me honest," she informs him. She owes him this truth. "I do not think I would like being honest."
He tucks her hair behind her ear, hopelessly affectionate. "No, I knew that from the beginning."
She wonders at his melancholy look. "Then why ask?"
She's dying and he can't tell her; the poet has no words. "I will stay with you." It's all he has left to give her.
It wasn't her plan, but she doesn't really want to die alone. "Thank you," she manages, then can speak no longer.
An hour of pure pain is upon her. Zhen's pride does not let her make a sound, so Zhi does it for her: He recites more poetry, hums provincial tunes; he tries to make it enough. Somehow, it is, he thinks, because there's a little smile on her beautiful face. Outside the window, the moon sets at last, taking with it the vigil of the night. The horizon claims and swallows the pale disc, drinks down the silver blue as greedily as a child, then slowly explodes with rosy fire.
Prince Cao Zhi watches the birth of the sunrise as Lady Zhen breathes her last; life fades from the midwinter sky.
She is gone. But he can't let her go.
"Do you remember, Zhen? You used to play the flute." Beautifully, too.
How did the old poem go? Life, that's scarce a hundred years, holds millenniums of fears…
"Who could play a tune like this, who but the wife of Ch'i Liang?" Somehow, it's always the women who pay the price. "It is not the singer's pain I pity, but few are those who understand the song." He wishes he didn't.
One last recitation, the prayer for the dead.
Emperor Cao Pi retreats to the one place he knows where nobody will bother him, which embarrassingly enough is the study. Apparently, he thinks sardonically, higher learning is anathema to his court when dungeons and sewers are not.
He glances over the latest reports from the provinces. It is a veritable minefield of parchment littering his desk and nauseating to look at, but it's preferable to the ivory flask sitting innocuously in his hands, delivered by his pale, withdrawn brother.
Not that Pi cares, of course. There is this visceral hatred of his brother deep in his heart- he loves nothing more than to make him suffer. Make both of them suffer. After all, that is why he had sent the Prince to save his Empress, is it not? One last revenge on both of them, use their pain one last time to hurt the other, a hurt deeper than any blade. How neat, how elegant.
How very much like his father.
For some reason, the thought doesn't bring him the joy he expects. Reluctantly, he turns his attention to the ornament in his hands, turning and examining it as though it holds all the answers. A little container of ivory inlaid with flowers of amethyst, not much more. He'd bought it for her during the war in the south, where a smiling vendor promised him a beautiful lady's eternal love.
The vendor had fulfilled his promise, he knows. It is too light to be full, but he checks anyway. Sure enough, the flask is empty.
Some moments pass, spent hunched, frozen, over this modest instrument of death. Did he know, all that time ago, that he would use it one day to kill her?
"If only you'd just told me your name."
(Yes, he knew. He always knew.)
"Let the feast last forever, delight the heart." It's Zhi's favorite poem. (His, too.) "Then what grief or gloom can weigh us down?"
They had all fulfilled their promises to her.
"How long will you love me?" The beauty stolen from Yecheng does not trust him. (But she loves him.)
He flashes her a smile, quickening her heart. "Forever." Forever, until I stop.